Same-Sex Unions: Stories and Rites

Same-Sex Unions: Stories and Rites

by Paul V. Marshall

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"Bishop Marshall has given us a pastoral gift. He has brought to life ways that the liturgy and worship of the Church can nourish and support Christians who are of the same gender contemplating life long covenant unions in Christ. Bringing together the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor, Bishop Marshall has given birth to a work that can help us grow as a…  See more details below


"Bishop Marshall has given us a pastoral gift. He has brought to life ways that the liturgy and worship of the Church can nourish and support Christians who are of the same gender contemplating life long covenant unions in Christ. Bringing together the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor, Bishop Marshall has given birth to a work that can help us grow as a community of faith in which all who seek to follow Jesus are helped and supported on their journey. I am honored to commend this work to the church." The Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, Bishop of North Carolina Same-Sex Unions, a contribution to the continuing debate on the church's pastoral care, offers biographical vignettes of two committed couples who have had their unions liturgically blessed in church and also contains complete texts of several same-sex rites, together with liturgical analysis and reference to secondary literature.

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Same-Sex Unions

Stories and Rites

By Paul V. Marshall

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2004 Paul V. Marshall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89869-754-4



Anne and Brenda

Anne and Brenda Bost live with their five-year-old son, Henry, in a traditionally and cheerfully decorated apartment near the heart of Greenwich Village, in the pleasant kind of building where the door attendant smiles at, greets, and announces the visitor. The Bost family can walk to their church and Henry's school through a neighborhood that is both quaint and intense.

It was not always this way. Until late in 2001 they lived in New York's financial district. The disaster of September 11 of that year forced them, like thousands of others, out of their home for three months. The trauma of the cataclysm next door made it terribly difficult for their son to return to that apartment, so ultimately they moved north. For much of their time away from their downtown home they lived as refugees at the General Theological Seminary, several neighborhoods uptown in Chelsea. In addition to the seminary community, the supportive and stabilizing element in this terrible time was their parish church, St. Luke in the Fields, where liturgical fellowship, corporate pastoral care, and uncommon helpfulness gave them spiritual and emotional gifts that they still cherish.

Anne is an attorney, and Brenda is a nurse. Each is from the South. Anne is winsome and voluble, Brenda a bit more reserved but always careful to be accurate and effective in what she says. Each impresses one with the dignity that only thoroughly examined lives radiate. They have been together for eleven years, and some six years ago adopted a common surname when Brenda also adopted the son Anne had borne. Watching them in action with their slightly rambunctious kindergartner (with that behavioral edge added, on the day I visited them, by a New York kid's de rigueur ear infection), brought to mind only that these were two committed parents slightly embarrassed by their offspring but not about to quit raising him with patience and love. They have been and are a family in every sense.

Why then, ten years into their relationship, in September of 2002, did they mark their commitment to each other in a liturgical celebration? Part of the answer lies in what religion had come to mean for them. Although their religious backgrounds were in different denominations, each learned rejection and condemnation of same-sex relationships as a part of Christian religion. Neither was impressed by the argument that one could intensely hate an act or state of being and still claim to love the one whose act or state it was, and religion accordingly receded in their awareness for some years.

Anne and Brenda report rediscovering the power of God and the dynamic of the church in the formation course they took in preparation for reception into the Episcopal Church. In that course they also fell in love with the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom, which was to provide the keynote in the liturgy of the word at their celebration. The decision to celebrate their covenant publicly was inseparable from the decision to do so at St. Luke's, where Anne is now a member of the vestry. It was to be at St. Luke's and not some more fashionable or hip place, she said without further elaboration, "because that's our home."

At the same time, they recognize that the planning and celebration of this liturgy "was a part of the evolution of St. Luke's." The parish had already been the site for what they considered "second-class, secret services in the [parish's] Garden." They were not interested in having an ambiguous "service about friendship," as Anne put it, and chose to wait until a complete liturgy was possible. When I asked, given that this was an evolutionary moment for a church on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, if they could appreciate that the evolutionary journey might be a longer one in other parts of the country, their answer was not defensive. "We weren't very threatening," was their reply, as the parish already knew them from long-term commitment and had seen them through the terrible time of the 9/11 apocalypse. The preparation and celebration were about an "us," not about some theoretical pair of lesbians, and came quite easily to the parish community.

Although the rector of the parish (who was on sabbatical as all this was taking shape) later thanked them for their "bravery" and the "ministry" they had done by being the first in the parish to go through the preparation and celebration of a complete rite, they had not for the most part seen their service in a heroic light. The decision at St. Luke's that it was time to move to public celebration was not made by parish resolution, opinion poll, or referendum, but pastorally. There were no secrets about it, but it was understood as a personal and sacramental matter rather than an act of revolution.

The curate and the parish deacon worked with Anne and Brenda in preparing the liturgy and in the preservice counseling. The curate reinforced their instinct to avoid the "second class" by insisting that all the ritual actions present in an opposite-sex wedding be part of Anne and Brenda's liturgy. For example, St. Luke's is a bit remarkable in that it retains the custom of binding the hands of the newly married couple with the celebrant's stole, but that is what it does, and so the priest built that act into the rite planned for Anne and Brenda. Essentially, the look and feel of celebrating covenanted life-commitment was to be the same regardless of the parties. (The binding of the hands, although not with a stole, is suggested in the liturgy of the Consultation on Same-Sex Unions.)

As would any other couple, Anne and Brenda had to meet St. Luke's prenuptial requirements: a year of regular church attendance and maintenance of a pledge (in addition to the marriage service's rubrical requirement of baptism). Above all, they were required to meet with clergy for counseling. The deacon led them through this process. As with most couples, they were not sure what to expect, but discovered that there was more to this idea of couple counseling than the intensely personal focus of psychotherapy. They were asked to focus on the relating, the relationship that was a third entity in their lives. Like many couples, they discovered similarities of outlook and belief to a greater extent than they had realized, and explored growing edges as well. The most impressive thing about their discussion of their counseling was how valuable yet unremarkable it all was.

The planning of the liturgy took a great deal of care, since it was close to the Prayer Book but also needed to be different because of who the "brides" (as they put it) were. Their reference to "brides" was intentional, because the first point in conceiving the liturgy was that it look not like somebody was "the man," as Brenda put it, but that it be about two women and look like it. Thus each would be escorted down the aisle, one by Anne's father and the other by Henry, and they would also trade escorts at the altar. Each would carry flowers.

For the liturgy itself, they made two decisions negatively. They had attended quite a few rites that had been expressed in the tactful language of friendship: at every decision point in the planning, according to Anne, they thought back on these encounters and "did the opposite." Unlike the planners of many same-sex rites, they entirely eliminated the "Dearly Beloved" part of the traditional service rather than replace it with something that might be tendentious, awkward, or stilted. There was also no inquiry into the existence of impediments to the union, as there are no civil or ecclesiastical laws to apply in New York. Instead, after the procession, the Eucharist began as usual, with the ordinary chants sung to Monteverdi's solid but ethereal Missa in illo tempore. This was to be Church, and no mistake about it.

The Collect of the Day was based on the Collect found at the same point in the Prayer Book service, with its use of the language of covenant, but also with the deliciously provocative notion that God might be enjoying this party:

O gracious and everliving God, look joyfully upon Anne and Brenda, who come before this community to make a covenant of love, fidelity, and lifelong commitment. Grant them your blessing and assist them with your grace, that, with true fidelity and steadfast love, they may honor and keep the covenant they make, though Jesus Christ....

The first lesson was from Wisdom, the couple's signature scripture. The passage (8:9–16) begins,

Therefore I determined to take her to live with me, knowing that she would give me good counsel and encouragement in cares and grief. Because of her I shall have glory among the multitudes and honor in the presence of the elders, though I am young.

Then would come an anthem, the familiar "entreat me not to leave thee," of the Ruth and Naomi story, but in the delicate vigor of a setting by Heinrich Schütz. The Epistle was the "love chapter," of 1 Corinthians, and the Gospel the Matthean form of the Beatitudes. The deacon who had prepared the couple then preached.

The section following the sermon in the Prayer Book is called "The Marriage," followed by a section called "The Blessing of the Marriage." In Anne and Brenda's service these are collapsed into a large section called "The Covenant and Blessing." This section contains all of the elements of the Prayer Book service: vows, rings, prayers, and blessing. It also adds the elements of sponsorship by the entire community (there is only one small question about support for the couple in the "Dearly Beloved" section of the Prayer Book rite). Both services follow the Blessing of the Couple with the exchange of the Peace. Anne describes this section as having gone through very many drafts and much discussion between couple and clergy until the right balance was found.

As we shall see, in predecessor rites for same-sex blessings there is a bit more interrogation before the covenanting, and more emphasis is placed on communal support. This reflects an awareness that couples not in the heterosexual majority seldom get sufficient support from the community at large. Thus the couple stand before the celebrant, who asks a question that has appeared in many initiatory liturgies throughout the years: "What do you seek?" They answer, "We ask a blessing from this community on our covenant," and one notes the assignment of the role of blessing to the community rather than the priest or the church at large, possibly an acknowledgment that the immediate community has a significant stake in the couple's success, and certainly an indication that in an uncertain time communal validation is no small thing.

Before addressing the assembly with the question about its support, which is stated so simply (and perhaps perfunctorily) in the Prayer Book marriage rite, the celebrant here is specific and blunt:

Will you, brothers and sisters in Christ, give your pledge to honor and uphold Anne and Brenda, to recognize them as a family in this community, to guide and pray for them in times of trouble, to celebrate with them in times of joy, to respect the bonds of their covenant, and to seek to discern the continuing presence of Christ within them?

The community is asked for recognition and support — and also to respect boundaries, reflecting wisdom gathered from the lives of couples of any composition.

What kind of vows would a lawyer write? What kind would a nurse write? There are familiar concepts but interesting textual divergences of emphasis in the vows Anne and Brenda wrote. They include what is promised by those using the Prayer Book marriage service, but in fact they seem to promise more:

In the name of God and before this congregation, I, N., promise you, N., to honor and cherish you, to share with you in life's joys and triumphs, and to stand with you in times of grief and misfortune. I will be truthful in all things and strive with you to create a home filled with reverence and hospitality. I promise to love you all the days of my life. This is my solemn vow.

To the ordinary promise of lifelong fidelity through good and ill fortune, Anne and Brenda have added the elements of truthfulness, reverence, and hospitality, all reflective of their readings in the wisdom traditions.

The rings were blessed in the usual way and exchanged with words not much different from those of the Prayer Book, but with additional terms of endearment, "I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow to you, my friend, my sister, my partner, my spouse." Gone, however, is the expression "with all that I have and all that I am, I honor you," our flaccid and puritan circumlocution for 1662's robust "with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow." When I asked why there was not a parallel formula in their rite, Anne said that it just had not come up in discussion.

The prayers are the first half of those of the marriage service with very slight and occasional adaptation, such as replacing "marriage" with "lifelong covenant." The prayers conclude with the final petitions of Form IV of the Prayers of the People in the Rite Two Eucharist. The prayers were chanted by Anne's father.

The blessing is based on the second form provided in the Prayer Book rite, with the first line altered to speak of covenants rather than marriage, and to avoid the spousal language used regarding Christ and the church.

There followed the Peace, and the Eucharist was celebrated. The offertory was a version of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," in a translation that echoed the first lesson with the reference to Christ as "holy wisdom." The Proper Preface was that of the Ascension, and the Communion Motet was William Byrd's "O sacrum convivium."

The classical and slightly abstracted element in the music was balanced by the preservice music, a jazz improvisation on Beethoven's "Hymn to Joy," by New Orleans musical figure David Ellington. The postlude was on the fun side, a seventeenth-century battle song chosen in part so that Henry could hear the bells of the organ's Zimbelstern, his favorite stop.

The choices in service music and of an elaborate liturgy that demanded much of the participants conveyed Anne and Brenda's taste, to be sure, but they also conveyed their intention that this liturgy be fully that of their parish church, celebrated with fullest integrity.

They also know a thing or two about parties, and the festivities continued very publicly. The entire assembly, about 110 people, marched through Greenwich Village as though it were a village in France or Italy. Photographs reveal the onlookers getting up from sidewalk cafes to make way, cheering the couple and their friends as they moved through their village. What followed was in the New Orleans tradition, and thus was not a reception, but well and truly a party of major proportions. The photographs suggest that even the photographer got into the mood of the event.

Anne and Brenda consistently refer to this event as "our wedding" and were emphatic in telling me that use of this expression was "not political," but simply describes "what it is." We will want to pay attention to this observation in the next chapter. Anne says that she never "worried about offending people," because she and Brenda were acting with integrity with no intent to "get into anyone's face." Brenda was characteristically direct: when speaking of her desire that the rite be clearly that for two women, she summed up with "this was the right thing ... I wanted to stand before the community" as who and what she was.

After we had gotten through the discussion of their previous life and the liturgical celebration, I asked what I believed to be a crucial question: How, if at all, was their life together different now that they had been through this celebration? I had to ask each of them separately, as they were by this time taking turns with Henry in another room, so the convergence of their answers is striking. Anne said that they were both a bit surprised to find that the entire event was "more than a rubber stamp or a big party." She was "surprised, after a long relationship, how renewed and blessed" they felt. She had a new perception of how supported their life is — and how their commitment deepened accordingly.

Brenda's thoughts were similar. "Getting married — I felt very blessed. It really became part of my shield." She then spoke of the importance of community support, but took me a bit by surprise when she added, "Now I'm looking at ways that I can give back." In thirty-two years of ordained ministry I had never heard anyone respond to a marriage service this way, so I asked her to talk about that some more. "It took this," meaning the union service, for her to become thoroughly enthused about community, specifically that of the church. But far beyond that, she reports a heightened desire to help gay and lesbian families make intergenerational connections. She and Anne have in fact sponsored an intergenerational picnic as part of Gay Pride observances, and she feels an intensified commitment to that, but also speaks of it now with the word "ministry."

Excerpted from Same-Sex Unions by Paul V. Marshall. Copyright © 2004 by Paul V. Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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